Between Constantinople and Baghdad: Wine, Islam and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, c. 600–1300

A Strange Paradox in Wine History

There is a peculiar contradiction in the history of wine in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East during the Middle Ages, with different cultural situations in Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East being reflected in their attitudes towards wine.

The Early Middle Ages: Decline in Western Europe, Flourishing in the Eastern Mediterranean

In contrast to the decline of the wine culture in Western Europe, the wine culture in Eastern Europe and the Middle East remained vibrant between 600 AD and 1300 AD. The Byzantine Empire continued the Roman wine culture, and the Arab Caliphate, established in the mid-17th century, had a more nuanced approach to wine.

The Wine Culture of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant, and the Middle East

In 600 AD, the wine culture in these regions was relatively uniform, as the Byzantine Empire ruled much of the area. Wine was a major trade good between cities like Alexandria, Damascus, and regions dominated by the Bedouins and Arabs.

The Rise of Islam and Its Impact on Wine Culture

The rise of Islam under Muhammad ibn Abdullah in the early 7th century led to a series of military conquests and the establishment of the Caliphate. While alcohol is generally prohibited in Islam, the attitude towards wine during the Middle Ages was more nuanced, with debates about its toleration in Islamic society.

Wine in the Islamic Golden Age

Throughout the 8th to 11th centuries, wine continued to play a central role in Islamic life, with Arab wine poetry becoming a prominent aspect of the literary culture in Baghdad. The main difference was that most wine was imported from the Byzantine Empire, and the trade within the Caliphate was often handled by Christians or Jews.

The Role of the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades

The Byzantine Empire and the European powers occupying the Holy Land during the Crusades contributed to the permissive culture towards alcohol in the region. Major European trading powers like the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Genoa established extensive trading routes and acquired territories, with wine being central to the regional trade.

The Decline of the Wine Culture in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean

The collapse of the wine culture in these regions was not due to religious prescription, but rather the arrival of foreign agents such as the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks. The Mongols’ conquests and the spread of diseases like the bubonic plague significantly impacted the region, leading to new powers like the Ottoman Turks dominating the area and ushering in a less tolerant attitude towards alcohol that has persisted to the present day.

The Resilience of Wine Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East

Despite the decline in wine culture due to the Mongol invasions, the Ottoman Turks’ rise to power, and the spread of diseases, some elements of the wine culture in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East persisted. This resilience can be attributed to a few key factors.

Christian Communities and Wine Production

Christian communities living within the Islamic territories continued to produce wine for religious purposes, particularly for the Eucharist. These communities, such as the Copts in Egypt, the Maronites in Lebanon, and the Greek Orthodox in Anatolia, managed to preserve their winemaking traditions and pass them down through generations, ensuring that the knowledge and techniques of winemaking survived.

Trade with Europe

European trading powers, such as the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Genoa, maintained their presence in the region and continued to trade wine. As a result, wine remained an essential commodity in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its production never entirely ceased. Additionally, European travelers and merchants who visited the region often documented their experiences with local wines, providing valuable insights into the wine culture of the period.

The Revival of Wine Culture in Modern Times

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wine culture in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East began to experience a revival. Several factors contributed to this resurgence, including the influence of European colonial powers, the emergence of national identities, and the growth of the global wine market.

Colonial powers, such as the French in Lebanon and the British in Palestine, encouraged the production of wine in their territories, viewing it as a means of economic development and a way to promote their own wine culture. This led to the establishment of modern wineries in the region and the revival of indigenous grape varieties.

Moreover, the formation of new nations and the desire to assert their cultural identities contributed to the renaissance of wine culture. Countries such as Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Armenia began to invest in their local wine industries, leading to the emergence of unique and distinctive wines that reflected their historical and cultural connections to wine.

The Legacy of Wine Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East

While wine culture in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East experienced significant challenges during the Middle Ages, it proved to be resilient and adaptable. Today, the region is witnessing a renaissance in wine production and appreciation, with a growing number of wineries and a diverse array of wine styles that reflect the region’s rich history and cultural heritage.

In conclusion, the history of wine in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East during the Middle Ages provides a fascinating insight into the complex interplay of religion, politics, trade, and cultural exchange. It demonstrates the resilience of wine culture in the face of adversity and highlights the importance of preserving and celebrating this unique aspect of the region’s history.

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On this Day

8 June 632 – On this day in 632, the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah, founder of the religion of Islam, died in the city of Medina in the Hejaz region in western Arabia. Muhammad emerged as a religious leader in the cities along the major Arab trading routes of the Arabian Peninsula in the 610s. During the course of the 620s, he preached the religion as a religious prophet. By the time of his demise, most of the population of the Arabian Peninsula had been converted to Islam. During the subsequent decades, his followers launched a series of massive military campaigns that eventually brought Muslim armies as far west as Morocco, France, and Spain and east to the Asian Steppe.

Eventually, his successors would rule an Arab Caliphate, or holy empire, centered in the city of Baghdad. Typically Islam is perceived as a religion that prohibits the consumption of alcohol. So the rise of Islam and the Arab Caliphate should have led to a major decline in the wine culture of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in the following centuries. However, in fact, the situation was much more nuanced. The trade-in wine and its cultural role being more considerable across the region between 600 and 1300 than we would naturally assume. 

4 March 1193 – On this day in 1193, Al-Nasr Salah-al Din, better known simply as Saladin Ayubi, meaning the ‘Righteousness of the Faith’, died at Damascus in Syria. This Kurdish general had risen to become Vizier of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and the Levant in 1169 and captured the city of Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders who had held it for nearly a century in 1087. Nonetheless, while he is revered today as a paragon of Islamic fervor, Saladin was surprisingly a noted partaker of alcohol.

Prior to his elevation to the office of vizier, he was famous for drinking wine. Even after he came to govern extensive territories throughout the Levant. His proscriptions on the sale and consumption of alcohol were sporadic and mainly tokenistic. In this regard, Saladin’s life reflects the ambiguous intolerance of alcohol that pertained throughout the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. 

Want to read more? Try these books!

A Pearl in Wine- Essays in the Life, Music and Sufism of Hazrat Inayat Khan The Rhetoric of Sobriety- Wine in Early Islam

Reference:

  1. Francisco Apellániz, ‘Venetian Trading Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean’, in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Autumn, 2013), pp. 157–179. 
  2. Kathryn M. Kueny, The Rhetoric of Sobriety: Wine in Early Islam (Albany, New York, 2001). 
  3. Paulina Lewicka, Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes: Aspects of Life in an Islamic Metropolis of the Eastern Mediterranean (Boston, 2011).
  4. George C. Maniatis, ‘The Byzantine Winemaking Industry’, in Byzantion, Vol. 83 (2013), pp. 229–274. 
  5. Mohammed Maraqten, ‘Wine Drinking and Wine Prohibition in Arabia Before Islam’, in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Vol. 23: Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Seminar for Arabian Studies, 21st–23rd July 1992 (1993), pp. 95–115. 

 

Categories: Ancient Wine History, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: October 26, 2022Last Updated: February 21, 2024

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